TALL tales and legends come naturally to Taffy Thomas.
He’s just turned 65 but as sharp-witted and lyrical as ever with a huge amount of stories in what he calls the library of his mind.
Grasmere-based Taffy is in demand across the nation, giving 300 performances a year.
He’s just back from the Kate Rusby Festival at Barnsley and heading off to Sidmouth for another appearance the next day.
Book publishes are also on his yarn-spinning trail.
The History Press has just published Taffy’s First World War Folk Tales co-authored with Helen Watts, an established writer who has worked in educational publishing for more than 25 years.
The literary pairing has also penned The Ghost of the Trenches and other stories from the First World War, which has also just been released by Bloomsbury.
And books mean a lot to Taffy: “I grew up with a profoundly deaf cousin and realised the only way he or the deaf community could access my repertoire was through books,” he explains.
“Also it is important as a traditional teller that future generations of storytellers not only have access through audio recordings, but also in print.
Taffy’s a senior statesman of the storytelling world with many accolades to his name.
For starters, he has a MBE for services to storytelling and charity and a British Award for Storytelling Excellence (BASE).
He’s a patron of National Society of Storytelling and Open Storytellers Learning Disabled Adults, which he says “is a truly amazing organisation.”
And he’s got awards and gold stars for performing his fibs and fables coming out of his ears. Well, near enough.
It was Taffy’s grandfather who first sparked his interest in storytelling: “He was the stationmaster at Yeovil Pen Mill station, and a great storyteller who had a word for everyone and everyone had a word for him.
“Then, as a teenager interested in the folk revival of the 60s and 70s, I was taken by two stalwarts of the traditional arts to meet an old lady, Ruth Tongue, one of the most important women in traditional English storytelling. Ruth died not long after I spent time with her collecting stories, so I’m the only storyteller in the revival who had time with her.”
Taffy’s own story is one of triumph over adversity and a fresh career, following a major stroke at the age of 36.
“After my stroke, when I decided to continue to work in the arts, I started to collect stories from and listen to Scottish traveller, Betsy Whyte. She was illiterate as a child, but came to literacy through the art of storytelling she had been steeped in all her life. She later became a fellow of the School of Scottish studies at Edinburgh University and the author of two very important books about her legacy of storytelling. To see the dedication and the importance of the art these people left behind was very inspirational to me.”
Taffy’s audience is cross generational and says people remember their history as stories and those stories are a part of our cultural history.
“The story is the star. The storyteller is just the vehicle to channel the story.
“And storytelling can bring people together.”
Taffy says his stories are for the young and the young at heart and he’s staged many a verbal banquet of legends, myths, sagas and superstitions, spiced at times by music and dance.
“One evening I was parked in a petrol station near Keighley with my vehicle which has Taffy Thomas Storyteller blazoned on the side it when a formation of Hell’s Angels just like out of a Clint Eastwood film pulled up and surrounded me saying ‘okay storyteller, tells us a story.’ They all leaned on their handlebars and listened intently. They said it was great before they roared off into the night.”
In 1995 Taffy was the first South Lakeland District Council storyteller-in-residence and he flew the folklore flag at Ings on the first Tuesday of each month (and still does) at the Watermill Inn as part of the South Lakeland Storytelling Club.
Taffy’s first storytelling sortie to Lakeland was in 1979 when he came to work with two other eminent figures from the arts world, engineers of the imagination John Fox and Sue Gill, at Ulverston’s Welfare State International.
At the time his wife to be Chrissy was a dance worker at Kendal’s Brewery Arts Centre.
“We started going out, and then we started staying in, and that was it.”
They married in 1984 and went on to have three children - Rosie, Aimee and Sam.
Constantly gigging doesn’t allow Taffy and Chrissy much time for hobbies.
However, the grand master of tale telling does like cricket and watches it when he can - and Chrissy’s a great cook as well as driver, administrator, inspiration, soul mate and general apple of Taffy’s eye.
Chrissy’s uncle Walter Keeton was opening batsman for both Nottingham and England - Taffy fact or fiction? Fact!
Before being gripped by the magic of storytelling, Taffy tried his hand as a school teacher, fire eater, an escapologist.
Taffy also has a bond with the sea, which goes back to 1980 when he was a professional fisherman, a valuable experience, which provided him with a wealth of sea lore. “I’ve collected plenty of salty tales,” quips Taffy.
Taffy has a vast amount of stories in his riddle-ridden repertoire - 100 of which were lovingly sewn into a special Tale Coat in 1999 by one of the top textile artists in the north, Paddy Killer.
When Taffy wears his fabulous finery he invites his gathered audience to point to an image on the coat and request a story, just like a jukebox.
Taffy claims that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes blur - but never does the truth bend.
Wrapping up the interview before he heads off for another show he relates a true tale following a storytelling session he did at a Lancaster school.
“The teacher rang me later and said he’d heard two of the little boys talking. One of them said to the other ‘was that the real Taffy Thomas.’ The other said, ‘well, he said he was, but I think he is really Father Christmas and this is what he does for his summer job.’”